Published: Feb. 19, 2018
SMZ Wickel- und Montagetechnik AG

Electric Motors: Coiled for Success

From a few grams to several kilos – electric motors come in a wide variety of sizes and have many applications. A single car today houses as many as 200 electric motors – from the windscreen wipers to the central locking system, and also increasingly in the main drive. The main component of every e-motor is a copper coil, like the ones that SMZ AG custom makes by the millions in a completely automated process at its plants in Würenlos.

Electric cars are enjoying increased popularity and are no longer a rarity on the roads in Switzerland. What would amount to a revolution for mobility is standard in other areas: All motors are normally electric. And a copper coil turns in the core of each of them, driven by an electromagnetic field. This is without a doubt a growth market, because not only do electric cars have electric motors in abundance, but they are also used to move all sorts of things in every vehicle with an internal combustion engine – from the windscreen wipers to the central locking system.

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No Car without Electric Motors
SMZ AG in Würenlos builds the production lines for the copper coils in electric motors, which are tailored to meet every highly specialized application. About 80-90 percent of the company's customers are in the automotive industry, but it also supplies the power tools and household goods sectors. Motors in the automotive industry normally operate at 24 volts, which requires thicker copper wire than other areas of application, so special machinery is needed to wind this into coils. SMZ AG's ability to service this special segment of the market provides it with yet another advantage to accompany its good reputation for "Swissness."

End users in the automotive industry are constantly placing higher demands on the pricing, performance, and quality of the motors, so SMZ must also keep up with the global market. Apart from the price, the main production and planning parameters are performance and quality of the coils. Performance is measured in kilowatts per gram and size. The automotive industry requires ever more density and less weight. Quality is measured particularly in terms of longevity and low maintenance requirements. For these reasons, the way in which the copper wire is wound is the key aspect of the production process.

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When the automotive industry makes its demands, a small company like SMZ AG can start to feel the pressure. Completing the order generates ongoing costs that must be pre-financed, while the customer's final payment may take weeks or months to arrive. Those who do not have the necessary financial cushion will quickly reach their limits. "The partnership with Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd.. gives us the support needed to be able to fulfill even large orders," explains Toni Lang, CEO of SMZ AG.

Swiss Expertise, Chinese Infrastructure
Since 2015, SMZ AG has been majority owned by the Chinese group JULI Ltd. "Even though our main shareholder is Chinese, our goal is still to safeguard jobs in Switzerland and in doing so also make a contribution to preserving Switzerland as a location for high-tech development. SMZ covers all disciplines in engineering, and that won't change in the future," affirms CEO Lang. The idea is not to reduce, but increase turnover with the help of the Chinese parent company JULI. 

How does the company with around 70 employees survive in the global market of auto suppliers? Through focus and specialization. Many contracts for creating a production line started off as a simple consulting order. It is very common for clients to order a production line, even when their product is not yet fully developed. CEO Toni Lang explains: "Usually our clients come with a new product, and we build the machinery for it. We do not develop the motor itself but help to ensure that its production can be automated. Usually it is about simultaneous engineering: We develop the coil, and at the same time refine the automation."

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Swiss Quality Components for a Growth Market
In 2016, SMZ began to gradually outsource assembly hours to China; SMZ in Würenlos specializes in the end assembly of components, and refining the production lines. By 2017, its share of Swiss end assembly had already climbed to 50 percent. "The goal for 2018 is 70 percent," says CEO Toni Lang, "so that we can generate more revenue and secure work for our people here over the long term. After all, it is these Swiss quality components that our clients ultimately value. We bring in our expertise, customize the machinery, and put the lines into operation in the presence of the customers."

The Würenlos-based SME has already reeled in its first major projects for electric drives in China, but is now particularly tempted by the European market. "Electric cars are on the rise, and legislation is also moving in our direction," says CEO Toni Lang. The call for more energy efficiency, for downsizing and for weight-saving in car making is likely to boost demand for new developments in motors. In addition, there is a tendency to incorporate a growing number of the wide range of electric motors available into each car, for example, to set seating height and angle. Toni Lang believes that "vehicles that adapt to individual drivers based on a fingerprint will become a lifestyle requirement."

The outlook for 2018 is promising: SMZ is currently working on concluding the largest framework agreement in its company history. It relates to a power-steering project, and involves collaboration with a market-leading motor manufacturer that makes 2-3 million motors per day. SMZ already has many years of experience in this area and has carried out several consulting orders with the client. Its chances of landing this large order are excellent, and – thanks to the partnership with Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. – there are no obstacles to stop the company taking on further orders of such magnitude.